It's just the beginning

Greta Hughson discovers an art award she can really get enthusiastic about, with an event that supports women in contact with the criminal justice system

Greta Hughson, 1 October 2012

Freedom C Niki.jpgThe small exhibition showcasing entries to the Women's Support Centre, New Beginnings Art Awards, encapsulates many of the things I love about art. It has strong themes of reflection and self-analysis and shows off the skills and talents of women who are exploring artistic expression. Forget your champagne private views and your retrospectives. Park your snobbery and your thirst for the next big thing. Tucked away in a Surrey gallery, half an hour from London, this exhibition is about women saying something about themselves, their experiences and aspirations through art, often for the first time and often anonymously.

The New Beginnings awards were launched last year by the Women's Support Centre for women in contact with the criminal justice system in Surrey. It covers women in prison (Surrey has three women's prisons), on probation, in the community or identified as being at risk of offending. That's where the common ground among the artists ends; the women who have entered the awards are from all different backgrounds, age groups and life situations.

Founded in May 2010, the Centre works with women on practical things, like housing, substance abuse and contact with family, but recognises that another thing many of the women have in common is low self-esteem. Working on motivation and building up self-worth can be key parts of an individual's support plan. Therefore, the practical work sits alongside more experiential work - like art. Two years on, the national reoffending rate for women is around 60%, while the figure for women in contact with the Centre is 20%.

When the exhibition is over, the artist (Marjorie) intends to give the doll to her niece: one of the loveliest things I have ever read on a text panel in a gallery

In the lead up to this year's award, a variety of established artists volunteered their time to hold workshops in prisons and community settings. Following these workshops, women could choose to enter one piece of artwork to the awards along with a short description and a selection of this work is on show at The Lightbox gallery in Woking.

The theme for the exhibition is 'Sugar and Spice'. The entrants choose to interpret this in a variety of ways: some literally and some exploring femininity and what it means to be a woman. For some of the participants it was the first time they had picked up a camera or worked with clay. There are examples of collage, textiles, photography, painting and sculpture in this small exhibition and each piece has something to say.

The Sweet Smell of Spice C The Artist.jpgOne of the more literal interpretations of the theme is 'The Sweet Smell of Spice', a painting of an African family selling spices and cakes at a market. The artist (anonymous) has used beautiful colours, with the mother dressed in striking cool blue, against the bright yellow of her child's dress. Mother and children are in the foreground and all the figures gaze out at the viewer. It's a scene a million miles away from England and I wonder about the artist and whether this is a scene she knows.

A more traditionally English piece comes in the form of 'Jemima', a beautiful rag doll displayed under glass because visitors would want to touch her and pick her up. When the exhibition is over, the artist (Marjorie) intends to give the doll to her niece: one of the loveliest things I have ever read on a text panel in a gallery.

Perhaps the most technically accomplished artwork is 'Untitled' by Fiona, a large drawing inspired by the artist's favourite masterpieces. In fact, it is not only inspired by them but includes reproductions of several famous pieces, mixed up within it like a game of spot the famous painting. Among others, I found the face of 'The girl with the pearl earring' and the hands from Michelangelo's 'The creation of Adam'.

Janet says of the painting, "I wanted to let out my thoughts and mixed-up feelings, to try to understand where I am going and where I have come from."

The judge's prize has gone to a small sculpture called 'Freedom'. It was produced in a community workshop by a woman (Niki) who had never previously tried sculpture. It is a model of a woman running and has a delicacy to it, in the flow of the limbs, without seeming fragile. Niki's description of the model as "a strong focused woman, secure in her identification with both the sugar (sweetness, kindness, generosity) and the spice (zest, vigour, action) elements of her personality" neatly encapsulates the exhibition's theme.

One of my favourite pieces is a large painting in bold, colourful acrylics, which includes all manner of smaller images, some of them dream-like. It feels to me like the theme of the painting bringing all the images together is simply the artist herself (Janet) and I can only guess at what some of the items might represent. Janet says of the painting "I wanted to let out my thoughts and mixed-up feelings, to try to understand where I am going and where I have come from." I can't think of a better description for art as self-expression.

The exhibition is in the ground floor Art Fund Gallery on at The Lightbox until 21 October 2012, after which a selection of work will be shown in libraries in Surrey. Entry is free.

In keeping with the wish to give positive feedback to the women involved, visitors are asked to vote for a second award, the people's choice. They are also asked to write down a reason for their choice, which will be passed on to the artists.

Pictures are used with permission. The first photo is of 'Freedom' by Niki and the second photo is of 'The Sweet Smell of Spice' by Anonymous.

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Greta Hughson

Greta is a short Shetlander, working for a brilliant HIV charity in London and squeezing a lot into the rest of her days. Find her @gretahughson or on a windswept beach

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